Bottom-Up Leadership

This article was written as a ‘Tips from the Top’ article for The Marketer magazine in 2010.  The overall article discussed the idea of Bottom-Up Leadership.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists.  When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say:  we did it ourselves.”  Lao Tzu

To me, the idea of Bottom Up Leadership suggests people uniting, willingly, behind a shared goal.  And if, as they say, one willing volunteer really is worth a dozen conscripts, surely bottom up leadership is the way to go.  To that end, here are a handful of ideas that have worked for me.

1. “Stop kicking the dog”. Or…Before setting goals for your team, maybe get a little closer to the action by setting strategy and developing goals with your team.  Listen and learn about the challenges they face at their level and work with them to develop solutions they can deliver.  Ironically, this often produces tougher goals, secures 100% ownership and loyalty.

2. “Wake up and smell the coffee”. It’s a cliché but it’s true – marketing moves fast.  Right across the mix our teams identify new opportunities every day and as marketing managers, we have to be in a position to assess their relative merit and integrate them into ever more effective marketing plans.  So for the bottom-up manager there’s no hiding place. Continual reading & research is the order of the day and an efficient, structured process to access and assimilate this information is the only way to cope with the sheer volume.

3. “Touch it and feel it…today”   Here’s a thought.  The quickest route to a competitive edge is thinking and feeling like our customers – knowing something our competitors don’t know.  But do we talk with customers enough to do this? Our insight is often based on monthly or even quarterly reports – too late respond to and too sterile to galvanise interest.   So here’s an idea. Before your next board meeting, give each executive the phone numbers of 10 recent customers. Get them to call and ask about the customer’s experience.  It’s a reality check that’ll transform your meetings and get everyone wanting better, faster  information.                    

4. “Jump in, the water’s fine”. Ever wondered what your people really think about you?  Ever asked them?  In my experience the benefits of doing this are immense and rarely as scary as expected.  There are lots of techniques – 360 degree surveys for example – and the results can transform performance.  It doesn’t get much more BOTTOM UP than this!

5. “Stalk your agencies”. Should bottom up management include unannounced visits to agencies?  Personally I’m not convinced such guerrilla tactics work.  I favour the vice-like grip of a detailed brief, tight budgets with regular reconciliations, clear deadlines with penalties for overruns, and rigorous performance criteria with remuneration linked to results.  Great disciplines, but if they’re to be adopted at the bottom, they have to start from the top – CMOs take note the next time you’re tempted to of brief your agency verbally!

6. “Get down and dirty” It’s essential we understand how marketing decisions impact the wider organisation, especially the operational functions where customer experience is delivered.  For me there’s no substitute for CMOs spending lots of time inside the operation, to understand the nuts & bolts of what really goes on and how to influence things positively.

 7. “Spread the Wisdom” One final thought.  Marketing is filled with seasoned senior managers overflowing with invaluable experience AND talented but raw fledglings hungry for wisdom.  And so often it’s a case of “never the twain shall meet”  If you’re one of the ‘seasoned pros’ why not set up some regular coaching master classes to share your experience  – they’re easy to organise and in my experience, hugely enjoyable and rewarding for all concerned.

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